Soon after my appointment to the presidency of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I received a phone call inviting my wife, Susan, and me to a visit with Billy and Ruth Graham at their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Montreat, North Carolina.
Billy had been instrumental in the establishment of the school, along with Harold Ockenga and J. Howard Pew, and I was to be only the fourth president in the school’s already storied history.
As Susan and I were escorted to their rustic mountain retreat, past the old moonshiner’s cabin Ruth chose to keep intact from earlier owners, we discovered we were in store for more than an afternoon with a man and a woman who had been used by God to influence the wider evangelical world more than any other figures in the twentieth century.
We were in store for some living history.
Billy began reminiscing and storytelling. I asked him to describe the founding vision of the seminary and the many other institutions that he helped shape: Christianity Today magazine, Fuller Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Lausanne Movement and more.
The vision for each was the same.
As he began his world travels, Billy found that Christians around the world did not know one another, and he felt God impress upon his heart to try and bring them together. That, he said, was one of the principal reasons he wanted to see such institutions founded. There needed to be a place where evangelicals could get to know one another, be brought together, build relationships and form the alliances needed to affect the world for Christ. Fragmented, they would not have the synergy and strength needed to bring the gospel to bear on the world.
At the peak of Billy’s influence, the great need was to coalesce a movement, networking likeminded Christians around the world for the Great Commission. In so many ways Billy’s efforts succeeded—Christians were brought together and the world was deeply affected.
As we drove away that day, I couldn’t help but think about Billy’s vision for Christians around the world and how, at the end of his life, so much that he labored to achieve was in peril.
Once again, evangelical Christians are in need of a unifying vision and a common foundation to stand upon. The core issues remain the same. Now, though, it is less organizational than theological, less networking than soul-searching, less programmatic than strategic.
Billy brought the evangelical world together through four deep convictions:
- He believed in truth and the truth of the Bible.
- He was passionate about evangelism and doing everything possible to effectively reach out to a fallen world.
- He modeled civility and love toward others.
- He believed deeply in the centrality of the church.
Whether self-consciously or not, these were precisely the four pillars around which evangelical faith has been gathered throughout Christian history.
We need to coalesce around them again.
There is more that could be said of that day.
Billy, using his walker, showed us around the house that Ruth had almost single-handedly filled with odds and ends found at yard sales and auctions. Our time there ended with him taking us into his study, where he had written his sermons for the crusades that reached millions. Littered throughout were pictures of family and people who had influenced his life—all now gone to be with the God they had given their lives to serve.
I was touched, as so many have been before me, by his humility and genuine grace. But even more by his passionate love for Ruth, who sadly passed away just a few months after our visit.
Following an hour or so of conversation, he walked us back to the bedroom where Ruth was confined. She had gamely prepared to receive us and had been moved to a nearby chair, next to a low-lying bookshelf where notebooks containing books of the Bible had been prepared for her with oversized type so that she could read them despite her failing eyesight. Billy and Ruth talked of their nightly devotions together, how they prayed for their children, and how those who said there was no romance at their age were wrong.
“We have romance through our eyes,” Billy explained.
He was right. They did.
He seemed far more honored to entertain us in his home than we were to be entertained. He insisted on walking us to the door, and stood waving at our car until we were out of sight down the steep mountain road.
This great man has now gone home to be with the God he served throughout his life. I suppose this is my small way of waving goodbye.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.